Although I'm not that worried about Insight's solar panels that I didn't sleep well because of that, this question got me thinking!

The Mars Helicopter Scout is a planned robotic helicopter that will scout interesting targets and plan the best driving route for future Mars rovers.

A demonstration model has been approved to fly on the Mars 2020 mission, its payload being a high-resolution camera and a communication system to relay data to the rover. The helicopter has solar panels to recharge its batteries which can produce a power of 220 W.

Could not be the cleaning of solar panels also be an important job for such a helicopter scout?
Can it be calculated roughly if that power of 220 W is enough to remove the dust?

It would only have to land on and lift off from the horizontal laying solar panels carefully.

If I was on the decision-making level of ESA/Roscosmos I would place an order right away for this helicopter from NASA/JPL for the assistance of the Exomars solar power-driven Rosalind Franklin rover!

  • $\begingroup$ Are you especially interested in this Mars helicopter, or the more general case? (Or both?) $\endgroup$ – Roger Aug 16 '19 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Roger This Mars helicopter will be the only one available for some time. I think it would be too expensive to design one only for removing dust. $\endgroup$ – Cornelis Aug 16 '19 at 16:20

The Mars 2020 rover uses a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator for power, so it doesn’t have any solar panels.

It looks like the helicopter has its solar panel on top of the rotor. Flight vibrations will likely remove dust sufficiently.

The helicopter may be able to remove dust from the rover for other reasons, but the main concern there is avoiding crashing into the rover. As per your Wikipedia link, for their first flight tests on Mars, they plan to drop off the helicopter then drive the rover 100 meters away for separation.

  • $\begingroup$ Why do you have such a fear for crashing ? It has been tested extensively and after testing it on Mars you could use it on the panels on a day without wind. What would be the other reasons ? $\endgroup$ – Cornelis Aug 16 '19 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Conelisinspace An object spinning at 2900 RPM so close to a multi-million dollar rover is not a good idea in my opinion. And also, I don't think the amount of wind it produces is enough to clean the whole solar panel. $\endgroup$ – Star Man Aug 16 '19 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ $1.3 billion plus for the rover, according to Wikipedia $\endgroup$ – CourageousPotato Aug 16 '19 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ (1.3 for the ExoMars rover) $\endgroup$ – CourageousPotato Aug 19 '19 at 4:00

There's several reasons why the JPL Mars Helicopter Scout would not be well-suited for this sort of mission:

  • Its designed flight time is 90 seconds, once per day, which doesn't leave a lot of time for non-primary tasks. Even if dusting off solar panels was its only task, 90 seconds isn't a lot of time to do it.

  • It is designed to fly a total of five times, so this sort of job may not be the best use of its lifetime 450 seconds time aloft.

  • It has a mass of 1.8 kg, which implies that its downwash thrust may not be up to the task, especially in comparison to ambient Martian winds.

  • As others have pointed out, there's several catastrophic modes of failure for this sort of maneuver.

All that being said... could it remove dust? Possibly. It has to land somewhere, and if its landing pad is above and/or between some solar panels, and if it could tether down (in case a storm blows through) and spin up its prop, then maybe this sort of thing could be plausible. Maybe.

  • $\begingroup$ For the Mars 2020 mission the helicopter should fly five times but its lifetime will certainly be much longer. Think of all the rover missions that lasted many years longer than the time the rovers were designed for ! Catastrophic modes of failure for this sort of maneuver ? Its just common lifting and landing that should be easy to do for an extensively tested model like this. $\endgroup$ – Cornelis Aug 16 '19 at 16:56

Hovering over the solar panels is a high-risk activity (if you crash the helicopter, you'll damage the solar panels and potentially end the mission). Considering the MERs lasted on the order of 10 years without cleaning, I wouldn't take the risk.

The Mars 2020 rover does not have solar panels.

  • $\begingroup$ I recommended the helicopter only for the Rosalind Franklin rover, not the Mars 2020 one. Why should you crash the helicopter ? Just carefully landing and taking off is needed (not within a dust storm of course) $\endgroup$ – Cornelis Aug 16 '19 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Conelisinspace It's called an accident. For a mission of this nature, you play to avoid them. One of the ways you avoid them is by avoiding the conditions where the accident is possible. $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Oct 28 '19 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ @T.J.L. You don't avoid them when there's no energy from the solar panels anymore ! $\endgroup$ – Cornelis Oct 29 '19 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Conelisinspace No, you design a system using a method less dangerous than a flying buzz saw. $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Oct 29 '19 at 12:06

Well you are correct. The latest videos from ingenuity on Mars show that it creates a lot of dust when hovering. So it certainly could be used for such a purpose now or in the future, although it would be a last resort of course. The other danger is that it might create more dust to cover any structure than it clears.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Stack Exchange! Can you add a link to a particular video and indicate a time where this is seen to happen? Thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 1 at 13:42

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